A science museum is a museum devoted primarily to science. Older science museums tended to concentrate on static displays of objects related to natural history, paleontology, geology, industry and industrial machinery, etc. Modern trends in museology have broadened the range of subject matter and introduced many interactive exhibits. Modern science museums, increasingly referred to as 'science centres' or 'discovery centres', also feature technology.
While the mission statements of science centres and modern museums may vary, they are commonly places that make science accessible and encourage the excitement of discovery.
Museum of Jurassic Technology, Introduction & Background, p. 2.
As early as the Renaissance period, aristocrats collected curiosities for display to their families. Universities and in particular, medical schools also maintained study collections of specimens for their students. Scientists and collectors displayed their finds in private cabinets of curiosities. Such collections were the predecessors of modern natural history museums.
In 1863, the first purpose-built museum covering natural philosophy, the original Ashmolean museum (now called the Museum of the History of Science) in Oxford, England, was opened, although its scope was mixed.
This was followed in 1752, by the first dedicated science museum, the Museo de Ciencias Naturales, in Madrid, which almost didn't survive Francoist Spain. Today, the museum works closely with the Spanish National Research Council (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas).
The Utrecht University Museum, established in 1836, and the Netherlands' foremost research museum, is another example of a museum that displays an extensive collection of 18th-century animal and human "rarities" in its original setting.
Another branch in the genealogy of science museums developed during the Industrial Revolution. when great national exhibitions showcased the triumphs of both science and industry. An example is the 1851 Great Exhibition at The Crystal Palace, London, England, surplus items from which contributed to the Science Museum, London, founded in 1857.
In the United States of America, various natural history Societies established collections in the early 19th century. These later evolved into museums. A notable example was the New England Museum of Natural History, (now the Museum of Science) which opened in Boston in 1864. Another was the Academy of Science, St. Louis, founded in 1856, the first scientific organisation west of the Mississippi (although the organisation managed scientific collections for several decades, a formal museum was not created until the mid-20th century).
Modern science museums
The modern interactive science museum appears to have been pioneered by Munich’s Deutsches Museum (German Museum of Masterpieces of Science and Technology) in the early 20th century. This museum had moving exhibits where visitors were encouraged to push buttons and work levers. The concept was taken to the United States by Julius Rosenwald, chairman of Sears, Roebuck and Company, who visited the Deutsches Museum with his young son in 1911. He was so captivated by the experience that he decided to build a similar museum in his home town. Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry opened in phases between 1933 and 1940.
In 1959, the Museum of Science and Natural History (now the Saint Louis Science Center) was formally created by the Academy of Science of Saint Louis, featuring many interactive science and history exhibits, and in August 1969, Frank Oppenheimer dedicated his new Exploratorium in San Francisco almost completely to interactive science exhibits, building on the experience by publishing 'Cookbooks' that explain how to construct versions of the Exploratorium's exhibits.
The Ontario Science Centre, which opened in September 1969, continued the trend of featuring interactive exhibits rather than static displays.
In 1973, the first Omnimax cinema opened at the Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater and Science Center in San Diego's Balboa Park. The tilted-dome Space Theater doubled as a planetarium. The Science Centre was an exploratorium-style museum included as a small part of the complex. This combination of interactive science museum, planetarium and Omnimax theater pioneered a configuration that many major science museums now follow.
Also in 1973, the Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC) was founded as an international organisation to provide a collective voice, professional support, and programming opportunities for science centres, museums and related institutions.
The massive Cite des Sciences et de l'Industrie (City of Science and Industry) opened in Paris in 1986, and national centres soon followed in Denmark (Experimentarium), Finland (Heureka), and Spain (Museu de les Ciencies Principe Felipe). In the United Kingdom, the first interactive centres also opened in 1986 on a modest scale, with further developments more than a decade later, funded by the National Lottery for projects to celebrate the Millennium.
The Saint Louis Science Center's James S. McDonnell Planetarium
Space exhibit at the California Science Center
Interactive exhibit at the Science Museum London
Museums that brand themselves as science centres emphasise a hands-on approach, featuring interactive exhibits that encourage visitors to experiment and explore.
Urania (Science Centre) was founded in Berlin in 1888. Most of its exhibits were destroyed during World War II, as were those of a range of German technical museums. The Academy of Science of Saint Louis (founded in 1856) created the Saint Louis Museum of Science and Natural History in 1959 (Saint Louis Science Center), but generally science centres are a product of the 1960s and later. In the United Kingdom, many were founded as Millennium projects, with funding from the National Lotteries Fund.
The first 'science centre' in the United States was the Science Center of Pinellas County, founded in 1959. The Pacific Science Center (one of the first large organisations to call itself a 'science centre' rather than a museum), opened in a Seattle World's Fair building in 1962.
In 1969, Oppenheimer's Exploratorium opened in San Francisco, California, and the Ontario Science Centre opened near Toronto, Ontario, Canada. By the early 1970s, COSI Columbus, then known as the Center of Science and Industry in Columbus, Ohio, had run its first 'camp-in'.
In 1983, the Smithsonian Institution invited visitors to the Discovery Room in the newly-opened National Museum of Natural History Museum Support Center in Suitland, Maryland, where they could touch and handle formerly off-limits specimens.
The new-style museums banded together for mutual support. In 1971, 16 museum directors gathered to discuss the possibility of starting a new association; one more specifically tailored to their needs than the existing American Association of Museums (now the American Alliance of Museums). As a result of this, the Association of Science-Technology Centers was formally established in 1973, headquartered in Washington DC, but with an international organisational membership.
The corresponding European organisation is Ecsite, and in the United Kingdom, the Association of Science and Discovery Centres represents the interests of over 60 major science engagement organisations. In India, the National Council of Science Museums runs science centres at several places including Delhi, Bhopal, Nagpur and Ranchi. There are also a number of private Science Centres, including the Birla Science Museum and The Science Garage in Hyderabad.
- List of science museums
- Science education
- Science festival
- Science outreach
- Physics Outreach
- List of natural history museums
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